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Ritchie: You're probably familiar, Isabelle, with how we do these interviews. We start with your very early years. So today I thought we would begin before your career even got started in journalism.
Ritchie: I thought you might tell me a little bit about your mother and father.
Shelton: Okay. My father [Jarlath John Graham] graduated from Yale Scientific School—Sheffield Scientific School—but he never worked in that field. He was a stockbroker and a financial advisor of estate planning, that kind of stuff. My mother [Isabel Corboy Graham] came from—they were both of Irish extraction but two generations behind them. Her name was Corboy. It's a big plumbing contracting firm in Chicago. Later—when I knew about it, for instance, they had the contract to do all the plumbing in the Atlanta subway system. I mean, it's sort of a major firm.
They were married in 1912. My father had a bit of a drinking problem. It's the curse of the Irish, I'm afraid. They had four children of which I'm the oldest. I had three younger brothers.
Ritchie: So you were the only girl.
Shelton: I was the only girl, yes. We lived either in Chicago or in the suburbs. We lived in Lake Forest for several years and we had just moved to Glencoe, which is a little closer to Chicago, when my mother became seriously ill. She had a nervous breakdown. I had just turned thirteen. My life up until that time had been sort of pleasant and uneventful. But my whole life turned around with that event which totally coincidentally was—except it helps me fix the date in my mind—was almost exactly the time of the big stock market crash in 1929. As I said, the two were unrelated but it was a monumental event in my life. It changed everything.
We lived in a house in Glencoe and there was no way that my father could leave these four children in the house and go to work in the morning. My youngest brother was only about a year, year and a half, something like that. So an aunt [Elizabeth Padden], actually the sister of my grandmother, my father's mother [Minnie Padden Graham]—who owned an apartment building in Chicago, just a six-flat building—took us in, originally into her apartment which made it very crowded, decidedly, with five more people suddenly coming in. And eventually one of her apartments became vacant and we took that.
But especially after that happened, I became chief cook and bottle washer, and I was just thirteen. I really didn't know what I was doing. For a while, we would get dinner—this says something about the prices then—there was a little sort of a deli around the corner from the apartment and we could buy a complete dinner on a paper plate—meat, potato, vegetable and either a little salad or applesauce, something like that—for twenty-five cents. Of course, we didn't need a whole one for little kids. So we would buy a few of those and that would be our dinner.
But the Depression began to affect us rather soon and sometimes we only had peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. But mostly it changed my life because all of a sudden I was trying to raise three children, which was ludicrous because I was little more than a child myself.
Anyway, I graduated from—I was going mostly to Catholic schools.
Ritchie: Did you go to Catholic grade school?
Shelton: Yes. In Lake Forest—we had just moved there when I was in fifth grade and they put us in the Catholic school there, myself and any brothers who were old enough. But my parents got very upset because the sisters used to hit the knuckles of the children with rulers, which a lot of teachers did in those days and maybe they still do. And this upset my parents very much. So they took me out and put me in the public school, which happened to be a very good public school. It's sort of the story of schools still today. If it's in a really good neighborhood where parents have time to watch what's going on, it tends to be a better school. Of course, people in Lake Forest had loads of money. A lot of the children of the really wealthy people in Lake Forest went to the public school.
So it was a high-quality school. The parents used to send the principal to Europe every summer and he would come back with little pictures from art galleries around Europe and teach us a little bit about that. So it was a good experience. I stayed there for fifth, sixth and seventh grade. Then at the beginning of eighth we moved to Glencoe. I had just enrolled there, I guess around Labor Day, and then early in October my mother got sick, so obviously I didn't stay long.
Then when we moved in with my aunt [Elizabeth Padden] in Chicago, I went back to Catholic school, the nearest one there to where she lived, St. Thomas of Canterbury. And I graduated from there. Then I went to a Catholic high school, Immaculata, a girls' school, and stayed there for two years. Then when it got to the third year, my father was way behind in paying the tuition and the sisters wouldn't let me come back. So I went to Senn High School, public school, for that year. Then he somehow worked it out that I was able to come back for the senior year.
Ritchie: So we were finishing about your senior year in high school.
Shelton: Yes. I was saying I went back to finish and graduated from a Catholic high school, which I gather was very important to my father. Then I worked that summer and I think the preceding summer—I'm a little vague about that—at the Chicago World's Fair in the summer as a waitress in a restaurant, a Sizzling Steak House. I made pretty good money because the tips were generous.
Without even telling my father, I got a job in a restaurant in downtown Chicago for the fall. I signed up to go to school someplace, I can't even remember where, some local college. But when I told my father about it, he wouldn't hear of it. He insisted that I had to go to a Catholic college so I went to Mundelein College just for one semester. That was back in the time of the NYA, the National Youth Administration, which helped pay college tuition. I don't remember whether there was a means test but anyway, we were able to get some money that way, in return for which I swept out classrooms. I had a huge push broom, literally about five feet long, the brush part. I would move the chairs and clean out the classroom.
I began majoring in chemistry because I had loved my high school chemistry teacher. And she really got me interested in the subject. But I also was very interested in journalism. In fact, I knew from about age fourteen that what I really wanted to do was be a newspaper reporter. But a book came out about the time. I don't remember the title but it talked about—well, I think this was the title, it certainly was the subject—Science as the Wave of the Future. So I thought, well, the likelihood of my getting a job on a major newspaper as a woman is very small. I'm obviously going to have to support myself so maybe I'd better go with science. So I started with chemistry.
Ritchie: That's interesting that you say you obviously were going to have to support yourself. Was that the common notion or were you brought up with that idea?
Shelton: That's a good question.
Ritchie: Did your mother ever work outside the home?
Shelton: No, she never did. That's a very good question because people didn't generally and I don't know why I thought that. I guess it had something to do—I'm just thinking this through now—with the fact that I was beginning to feel sort of responsible for the family, as it was. That was one of the reasons, I remember now, that I took that summer job at the World's Fair. I mean, we were to the point where my brothers were running around in shoes with holes in them and things. My father—partly because it was the Depression and partly because he had a drinking problem—wasn't really able to support us very much. I think that was the sense I had, these brothers coming along for many years behind me and that as soon as I got out of high school, I would have to help support them.
Ritchie: How many years difference was there?
Shelton: The next one [Jarlath John "Jack" Graham] was about three and a half years younger—they were all about three to three and a half years apart. The baby [William "Billy" Graham]—and I'll probably cry when I talk about this—poor little thing, he never had a mother, you know. I was the closest he had and I was only thirteen when this started.
Ritchie: Your mother never recovered and came home?
Shelton: Well, many, many years later she came home. My older brother and I—as soon as he reached sixteen where he could get a job, he quit high school and the two of us moved out. Things had just gotten pretty awful with my father. His mother was in and out of the picture. We knew that she'd take care of the two younger brothers.
Ritchie: The aunt?
Shelton: No, that's the actual grandmother, not her sister who had taken us before. She would come and stay with us, sometimes for a month or two and then she and my father would get in terrible fights and she'd leave. That went on and off all the time. So we knew that if we weren't there, she'd take over. The reason my brother quit high school and the two of us moved out was that my mother was well enough to come home, the doctor said, but she couldn't come home to my father. The tension was too great and all that.
I forget how we got onto that. Where was I?
Ritchie: Well, we were talking about your work.
Shelton: Oh, why I decided I was going to have to work. And that was why. So I knew I wanted to be a reporter but I'd read this book. So I started majoring in chemistry. But after one semester in college, I just quit. I knew my father needed me to be working right away. But I also had noticed during the one semester that I was there, even though I was sweeping out classrooms after work and had to rush home and get dinner and do the laundry and all that, I still worked in some time to do things I liked outside the classroom.
And what I did was work on the college paper, the college—we had some kind of a literary monthly, I think, and the college annual. Everything that I did on my own, any time I had to choose how I wanted to spend it, was in the direction of journalism. So I decided that the heck with science, that obviously I was going to make the big pitch to somehow make it as a journalist.
But the first thing to do when I quit was just to get any kind of a job. One of the two sons of the aunt with whom we moved in worked for the Addressograph Company. I don't know if you know what that is. They used to make little metal plates that were just big enough for a name and address. They were address plates and a company would have drawer after drawer after drawer of them. Then you'd run them through a machine and that's how they sent out mailings to thousands of people.
Ritchie: Pre-computer days.
Shelton: Yes, pre-computer. He got me a job there and they trained me, which didn't take much training. It was just to type out these, in effect, labels except they were on metal plates. I had taught myself to type when I was about fourteen. I mean I got a typing book and just practiced enough so that I'd learn the touch-typing system, and once you know that, there wasn't much to the Addressograph job. But I felt very lucky to have any job.
So I worked for Addressograph for a few months and got very minimum pay. But they taught me how to do this and we did some things for them, typing labels, label plates. Then after you learned how to do it, Addressograph placed you with various firms. And they placed me with Continental Illinois Bank where I worked for about — oh, about four or five years, I forget.
Ritchie: So you were in charge of keeping their addressograph files up to date?
Shelton: Yes. I'm not even sure whether I was the only one doing it. I just don't remember that. I may have been.
Ritchie: It's interesting that your father wanted you to go to college.
Shelton: Well, he'd gone to college. He had pretty fixed ideas of what he wanted, they just weren't very practical in terms of the financial realities. For instance, he insisted that I take Greek, that's part of the classical education. I was never sorry I did it except that since I only did it for one semester, it didn't really make very much difference. Much later in my life, I got very interested in the classical period in Greece and actually took courses down at George Washington University.
I may be talking ahead of the story but although I stopped regular college after the first semester, I was always taking courses. When I was at the bank, I first took some courses at the American Bankers Association, including a writing course. The teacher there said, "You know, you really have some ability in writing. You ought to try and pursue this." Well, that was very impractical for a long time.
But then I began taking courses at Northwestern University which has an excellent journalism school. But they have a night branch of it also which is obviously where I took—that's downtown, rather than out at the big campus in Evanston. But it's still a part of the journalism school. And I took those courses.
Later on I took courses at the University of Chicago. That was during the period when [Robert Maynard] Hutchins was president and [Mortimer] Adler had his Great Books course. And the kind of courses I took, I was able to do them in the morning because I didn't go to work until noon. I am jumping ahead, but this is when I was at the Chicago Sun. So I would take morning courses. I don't know if you know about that. It's built around the curriculum of the great books and we studied—oh, the early documents, like Thomas Paine, that led to the U.S. Constitution and all that. Anyway, that was absolutely fascinating.
Ritchie: So you've always continued your education.
Shelton: I don't have a degree to this day. But I was in three different schools in Chicago—Mundelein, Northwestern and then Chicago. And then since I've come to Washington, I've taken courses at George Washington University and some at UDC, the University of the District of Columbia, which is right across the street. I seem to have a voracious appetite to learn things.
Ritchie: Going back to your high school years, you mentioned that a chemistry teacher encouraged you in that direction.
Shelton: Yes. Yes.
Ritchie: Were there any other teachers that were particularly interested in your abilities?
Shelton: Not that recall, except the one at the American Bankers Association later. I don't know what made me want to be a journalist but I really knew from about age fourteen that that's what I wanted to do.
Ritchie: What types of books did you like to read?
Shelton: Well, until my mother got sick, I just read the kind of things kids read, but just a voracious reader of books. During the years I was at the bank, I began reading books by journalists. I remember William R. Shirer had some books, and while they were by journalists, they were more about the building Nazi menace in World War II—which hadn't yet come along but they were writing about it. And then a man named Walter Durante was a Moscow correspondent—I believe for AP [Associated Press] but I'm not sure—wrote a book I Write As I Please. So you could see that even in my reading that I was interested in that kind of stuff. I've always been a political junkie, but not in the sense of wanting to be in politics, just fascinated with it.
Ritchie: Following it.
Ritchie: How did that start? Did your father talk about politics at home?
Shelton: We must have talked about it at home because the first election I remember, we were still in Lake Forest, Al Smith was running. That would have been '28. Let's see, I would have only twelve then, yes.
Ritchie: You remember that?
Shelton: I remember that very well. Of course, my family being Catholics were for Al Smith. I personally didn't have a—I mean, I was for Al Smith because they were. I really hadn't formed any thoughts of my own.
I also was a baseball fan, just a terrific baseball fan in those days. I just ate up everything in the papers about the Chicago Cubs, particularly. Then later when I was down in Immaculata High School, which happens to be only about four blocks or so—at least that's the way I remember it—from Cubs Park, I went to every home game for a couple of seasons. I'd sit in the bleachers for fifty cents.
I got thinking about that afterwards and thinking, how could my father have afforded that, even fifty cents, because we didn't have much money? And I remember now that it was largely one of my aunt's sons, the same one who later got me the Addressograph job, who would give me the money. He was a big baseball fan, too, and a good personal friend of some of the players—Gaby Hartnett, I remember, who was the catcher, he was a particular friend of his. So he sort of encouraged that, but I did love it.
Ritchie: Was that unusual for a girl?
Shelton: Yes, it was. I got to know the people in the bleachers. I even got to know some of the players a little bit. And because I didn't have very many clothes—well, we wore uniforms in school but when I went after school was out, I very often wore the same dress because I didn't have very many. They came to know me as "Little Girl in the Red Dress."
Ritchie: Would your brothers have ever gone with you?
Shelton: Yes, my oldest brother was quite a baseball fan. Again, since he was three and a half years younger, he wasn't as much into it as I was but he did go. I remember we went once to Cominsky Park, way on the other side of town, that's the Chicago White Sox team. And he got hit in the head with a ball, a foul ball that bounced up into the stands and hit him in the head. However, he recovered.
Ritchie: Do you think your father had different expectations for you since you were a girl? He clearly wanted you to be educated.
Shelton: He clearly wanted me to be educated. Clearly he was not thinking in terms of a career for me or I don't think he would have been pushing Greek. He just wanted an educated daughter. He was so burdened with problems, some of his own making, but also any man trying to raise four children in the Depression. We didn't talk about things like that.
Ritchie: So really he was more preoccupied and occupied with trying to—
Shelton: Just exist, yes. But obviously, he—when he decided I should go to Mundelein, my mother had already been sick four years. I don't know, I guess I can't really answer your question.
Ritchie: Who did you turn to if you had to talk about problems or help in making a decision?
Shelton: You know, I don't think I had anybody.
Ritchie: You worked it out on your own?
Shelton: Yes. I've been talking to my younger daughter [Diane Isabelle Shelton] recently because she's in the process of making a lot of decisions. And she said once, "You didn't have anybody, did you?"
Ritchie: To help you think things through?
Ritchie: To just bounce ideas off of.
Shelton: Yes, which is what I've been kind of doing for her now.
Ritchie: Looking at different options.
Shelton: Yes. I guess I just sort of turned inward.
Ritchie: You know, you mentioned your summer job. What did you do with the money when you earned it? Did you contribute to the home?
Shelton: Pretty much to the family, yes. That's why I can't remember where I would have been going to college because—unless it was like a city college or something where the tuition was—
Shelton: Free or very nearly free, because I was buying shoes for the kids, that kind of stuff. I just can't remember, it's gone out of my mind. I remember where I did go. I remember that my father was appalled at what I had been planning to do. He said, "No, you will go to Mundelein."
Ritchie: So in spite of the financial aspect he wanted you to go.
Shelton: Yes. I don't know how he did that but it may be that he—I really don't know the answer. But of course I paid part of it with the NYA work. But I suppose there was tuition to be paid. I don't know whether that paid it all. I suspect what maybe helped the situation was my grandfather [Andrew J.] Graham—and Graham was my name before I was married—was a sort of a big Catholic layman. He founded and ran what became the biggest private bank in Illinois. And he ran for mayor, he didn't win.
Ritchie: Mayor of Chicago?
Shelton: Mayor of Chicago. He didn't win but—he ran in the primary. I think maybe the Catholic schools waived some tuition. I don't really know that but knowing the financial situation at home, it seems to me that must have been how we did it. That maybe between the NYA work and the Graham family background—they had been major contributors to the church in the years my grandfather was alive and could. I suspect that was a part of it. I don't really know.
Ritchie: Well, your father's business must have been affected during that time because of the economic situation.
Shelton: Well, it was. A stockbroker or an estate planner, you don't need that very much in those times.
Ritchie: Were your grandparents an active part of your life?
Shelton: No. My paternal grandfather, the one who ran for mayor, died in May 1916 and I was born in August, so I never knew him. And his wife was the one—she was a fair part of my life but I hated her. She was the one who'd come in and out and fight with my father. I'd kind of like to write a story about her some day if I ever have time to sit down and do it. She was really a religious fanatic, a Catholic—
Shelton: Irish-Catholic, a religious fanatic. The story in the family—and I can't prove this—the bank failed sometime after my grandfather died. And the way the family has the story is that it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't died, that they did business often there just with a handshake. And when he died, some major lenders, particularly one who was building the Morrison Hotel, just welshed on their obligation. And it had only been done on a handshake.
So his two oldest sons—not my father, he was further down, there were five sons—but his two oldest sons who were by then running the bank just couldn't collect on this because there was nothing on paper.
Now why did I start to tell you that?
Ritchie: About your grandmother and her religious—
Shelton: Oh, yes. She had a million dollar life insurance policy that my grandfather had left her. And the story in the family is that she turned all of that in to help pay off the depositors when the bank closed, but she had a thousand dollars left and she used that to buy masses for my grandfather. I don't know if that's true. You know, you hear these things when you're growing up. But what I do personally know from having experienced it, the oldest brother—no, second oldest brother, Ralph—supported her, really, in the later years. So she did have some money that he would give her. I don't remember what kind of business he got into but he apparently did very well.
My grandmother would use what money she had, still to give to the churches. We children would get in the mail scapular medals—unless you're a Catholic, you don't know what they are—because she would give contributions to the brothers of this and the sisters of that, in our name, and then they would send us back as a thank you this little scapular medal. Well, she didn't have money for that. If she had extra money, she should have helped me buy shoes for the kids.
But anyway, she also went to mass every single day. She had seven different churches in Chicago. She would always go to one church on Monday, the next church on Tuesday, you know, she had a day in each of these churches. And she was the meanest human being I ever knew.
Another thing she did, at another time, when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, my father was having some financial troubles for a while then, too. We moved in with her. She had a great long—they call them railroad flats. It's an apartment with a living room up front and then a long hallway with rooms off to the left and the right. It was a pretty big apartment. There really was room for us. I think that maybe there were only two brothers by then, possibly.
Ritchie: At home with her?
Shelton: Yes. No, I mean, of my brothers. In other words, there weren't six of us moving in, there were probably about four. But there seemed to be room for us.
There was a holy water font—you know those little things on the door frame—in every room in the house. In the bedrooms the big mirrors were framed in wood and all around them were stuck little holy pictures. And on each radiator—the radiators had marble slabs across the top—and each one was like a creche scene, you know, like we have at Christmastime, Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in the crib. As I said, I was totally surrounded by religion and it was this woman who was very mean.
Ritchie: It didn't seem to go together.
Shelton: No, it didn't go together.
Ritchie: Were you raised as a Catholic? You went to Catholic schools.
Shelton: Yes. I went pretty much to Catholic schools. I spent three of the four years in high school and then the one semester in daytime college. And then after that I just went wherever I wanted. But when I was about twenty-one—by then we had left my father and my older brother and I were living with my mother—I stopped going to—being even a nominal Catholic. I'd been pretty nominal for a long time. I used to go to church every Sunday and sort of go through the motions but I was sort of realizing that my mind was wandering. I really wasn't getting anything out of it.
And I got very angry at the pastor in the particular church we then belonged to. The church had made a loan from an insurance company, I think Metropolitan, to extend itself. So every Sunday he would get up and talk with great pride about the fact that he had the longest parish in Chicago. Not the biggest, not the widest, but it was the longest, and he had this mortgage to pay off. I think it was a quarter of a million dollars. And that was the point of this sermon because you had to dig down into your pocket and give generously. Well, people were hungry then and I was really disgusted at this. He ought to be out organizing soup kitchens for his parishioners rather than bragging about this rich parish. So I left the church.
Ritchie: Did either your mother or your father feel anything when you did that, or say anything?
Shelton: Well, my mother, of course, was in the sanitarium and I wasn't living with my father, so really it wasn't a factor with them. I don't remember my mother ever protesting much, later when we brought her back. I think she just kind of accepted it.
Ritchie: Did your grandmother?
Shelton: Well, once we left I didn't have anything to do with her. And I wouldn't have cared what she thought. Of course she would have been appalled but I didn't care at all about her.
Ritchie: Was she mean or not nice to everyone or was it just your family? Do you think she regarded your father as a black sheep, so to speak?
Shelton: No, because as a matter of fact, my grandmother contributed to the sometimes indolence of my father. At the same time that we were living in this railroad apartment with her, for a while another son was living there with his wife. And the two wives would try and get their husbands up and out in the morning. This other brother had a drinking problem, too. Well, they would have been up carousing late at night and they weren't very good at getting up in the morning. And their wives would be trying to get them up, bringing them coffee, a cup of coffee, you know, to get them going. My grandmother would come in with the second cup of coffee and say, "That's all right, dear, you just take it easy. You don't have to extend yourself," which was terrible. She was just encouraging these bad habits. So no, he wasn't a unique black sheep in her family.
Ritchie: I thought maybe she just picked on your branch of the family.
Shelton: I don't know. I can't answer the question how she was with the other branches. I think she interacted more with us because here were these children without a mother, so she'd be coming in and out to try and lend a hand. She used to do that occasionally, even when we lived in Lake Forest, the years before my mother became sick. And I can see now things I didn't see then about why my mother became sick. She was just kind of overwhelmed with four children, no help, this erratic husband who she had to drive to the railroad station every morning and then pick up at night.
She was the one, for instance, who took care of the furnace. In those days, we had a furnace and you had to shake it down at night, all those things. She was the one who had to cut the grass or it didn't get cut. He wouldn't do things like that. But I remember what she would do. Finally it would get so high she'd hire somebody to come in with scythes and just cut it down. She was just totally overwhelmed and overburdened. She tried to do things like do a lot of canning in the summer to extend the budget. She did our washing and we didn't have the kind of washers and dryers—well, no dryers. We had a washer with a hand wringer. She would do that and then hang it all out in the back. And finally it just wore her down. And it was shortly after we moved to Glencoe that she cracked totally.
I remember my grandmother coming out once in a while because Mother would get so far behind and Grandmother would help her. I remember Grandmother standing over doing the—sometimes she'd prefer to do the laundry in the bathroom and I can't remember why, but she would have the tub full. We used to in those days have big plungers, not like the toilet plunger we think about now but on like a broomstick and it had a metal—like the hat that the tin man wears in the Wizard of Oz—just that kind of a cone on the end of it. And she would plunge this laundry up and down. Then she'd go out and hang it in the back yard. My mother was just embarrassed with all the neighbors. She was like a weird apparition. She had like rags tied all around her. It was kind of weird. I don't remember the details.
Finally, after a week or two, they would get into fights. My mother just couldn't stand it any more. My father would come home and get into a fight and then she would leave, for a while. So the pattern of her coming in and out of our house started even before my mother got sick. But I think it was always because this particular family was kind of overwhelmed.
Ralph, the one who supported her, they didn't have any children so he kind of took care of her rather than her having to do anything for them. Another brother, the oldest brother, had only one child and they stayed managed all right. Another boy had only one child and managed.
And then the youngest was the one that was for a while in the railroad apartment. They kind of had problems, too, and I think she kind of interfered in their lives because my first cousin, who's the son of that family, and I see each other still when I go to Chicago. He's kind of interested in the family genealogy, as am I. And the way he talks about her, the grandmother, I can tell that they had similarities.
Ritchie: What about your mother's parents?
Shelton: The grandfather [M. J. Corboy] died when I was very young. I had met him but I didn't really know him. Then she [Isabel Waller Corboy] was sort of secluded in an apartment for many years and I didn't see her. I guess her health wasn't good and I don't know what it was. I have since wondered but nobody ever told me and at that age I didn't think to ask. I don't know what they would have said if I did ask, but I don't think I asked. I've since wondered if it was something like tuberculosis. I really don't know, that's just a guess. But anyway, they were not a part of my life.
Ritchie: When your mother went to the sanitarium, did you go and visit her?
Shelton: Oh, no, I should tell you that. From the time she left, when I was just thirteen, they didn't let me see her until I was eighteen. She just kind of dropped out of my life.
Ritchie: So you wouldn't go on the weekends to see her?
Shelton: No. They just for some reason felt it wasn't appropriate until I was eighteen. I don't know why, really. Eventually, we had to take her back. I mean she did stay home for several years with my brother and me afterwards. We did take her back. I took my children, when they were way younger than eighteen, so it wasn't that there was a rule about age, it just was something my family decided, I guess. This was a nice sanitarium called Mercyville in Aurora, Illinois.
That's kind of, I guess, what I mean that I just decided I had to make my own decisions. My mother just dropped out of my life and I don't have a memory of notes at Christmas or anything.
Ritchie: Even though she was ill, she didn't remain any part, as you say.
Shelton: No, no. My father would go to see her from time to time but she was totally out of our family. She was just gone. I sort of realized and thought about it when she came back into the family with my brother and me that our roles—well, even before that, after I was eighteen and would go to see her, I realized that our roles had kind of reversed, that instead of her being the mother that I looked to, she was kind of my charge and responsibility, in a sense.
Fortunately, the plumbing family was quite well off so that's what paid her sanitarium bills. They took it out of her inheritance. My grandfather had left the kind of a will where everything is left in trust to his children but his widow gets the use of it during her lifetime. So all the sanitarium bills were subtracted from the share that my brothers and I eventually got after the grandmother died. But anyway, it was very fortunate that that money was there. Otherwise, I don't know what would have happened. She would have been in some state institution.
Ritchie: Your father simply couldn't have—
Shelton: No. She would have had to be in some state institution, I guess.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Ritchie: You mentioned liking to read when you were young. Can you remember any of the books that especially stand out in your mind?
Shelton: Oh, things like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, that's the kind of thing.
Ritchie: The usual ones.
Shelton: Yes, the usual ones. Oh, the series of books, including Tom Swift, not just the girls' series.
Ritchie: Where would you get your books?
Shelton: The library. Well, I had a good many, too. My mother was good about getting me books. But I also visited the library very regularly.
Ritchie: You mentioned working in college on the yearbook and the literary magazine. Did you do that in high school also?
Shelton: You know, I got to wondering about that the other day. I think I probably did but the memory is very dim—unless we just didn't have one. I'm sure I would have worked on it if there was one.
Ritchie: So you had no souvenirs from those days.
Shelton: No, I don't even have them from college. When I came to Washington in 1948 to get married, I left an awful lot of things behind. I told you that 1929 was kind of a seminal year for me. Well, in a different way 1948 was, because I was coming to a different city. I even left all my books behind. Some years later one of my brothers, who had them, packed them up in a box that when it arrived, it looked like a coffin, that's how big it was. He had it specially built just to accommodate the books. And it was wood. You would need that for the heavy weight of them.
But an awful lot of papers and things, I don't know what happened to them. They just never got to me. I did find one box of sort of Chicago memorabilia rather recently from which I extracted anything that would have been of use to you, having to do with the Chicago Sun. But there wasn't much.
Ritchie: Nothing from your high school, or early working years?
Shelton: No. It just went. I don't know where it went. It's gone.
Ritchie: Now, you and your brother moved out and you had the Addressograph job?
Shelton: No, I think I was at the bank by then.
Ritchie: So you had moved into the position at the bank, in charge of keeping their Addressograph files.
Shelton: Yes. Then later, sometime along the way, I stopped doing the Addressograph work and went into the—well, it's where we worked with adding machines, I forget the name of the department.
Ritchie: Some kind of accounting?
Shelton: Something like that. It was where we added up all the checks that came in. It's interesting to me, thinking about it—you know there's so much in the paper these days about—what is it, carpal tunnel syndrome, from people using computers. During the period that I was in that department where we had been basically using adding machines, larger, fancier equipment came in that sort of sorted the checks into various categories. I didn't happen to get to work on one of them. I don't remember why but I didn't.
I've figured out it's very fortunate I didn't because some of the people who did came down with what I now recognize was this carpal tunnel syndrome. One of them absolutely had to leave her job and then just had miserable medical problems at home. And of course the bank didn't accept any responsibility for it. I was already conscious that that was kind of terrible but that's all I knew about it.
Ritchie: So it was from using your hands on the machine.
Shelton: They obviously needed a different kind of a motion than we needed on the adding machine. Why I don't know. But enough people came down with it that it was—I remember that one case particularly because I knew her pretty well. But it happened to several people. I think it was a long time after before medicine figured out what caused it.
Ritchie: And gave it a name.
Ritchie: Do you remember how much you made at the bank?
Shelton: Oh, yes. That's kind of interesting. I do. When the Fair Labor Standards Act came along in 1934, that being one of the early Roosevelt New Deal programs, I was making twelve dollars a week. And they had to give me a raise because the minimum wage under that act was fifty-two dollars a month. So I would have—that would have been forty-eight—no, I'm sorry. Fifty-two dollars a month was what I did make. It was twelve a week which worked out to about fifty-two a month. The minimum was sixty-five so they had to give me a raise from fifty-two to sixty-five.
Ritchie: Even though you had moved out, were you still contributing to the family?
Shelton: No, it was all we could do, once we—you see, we brought my mother home right away, or very shortly after we moved, because that was the purpose of the move. And as a matter of fact, we couldn't have done that without some help from the Corboy estate. We went to my uncle who was the executor of the estate and said this was what we wanted to do and the doctor said it would be all right, but we would need X dollars—I forget what we got but it was some number of dollars a month, I don't think even up to a hundred. Just enough to kind of accommodate the fact that there were three of us, not just the two of us.
Ritchie: That was something for you and your brother to take on.
Shelton: Well, she so desperately wanted to get out of there and it was so sad to make her stay when there was something else could be done about it.
Ritchie: Did you ever think of pursuing your career in terms of banking?
Shelton: No. It was just a job. And the minute that times got better, which was about 1940, even a little before World War II started—in around that period but I think even a little more partly because Lend Lease helped our economy as we were, you know, sending lots of things to Britain. Anyway, as soon as there was just a slight break in the economy, I was so unhappy at the bank job that I just quit, without even having another job which in retrospect was kind of crazy. But I decided, "I will do anything. I will go work in a dime store, I will just do anything. I can't stand this any more."
Ritchie: Why didn't you like it?
Shelton: Well, it was dull, repetitive. I went to a—I learned about this, I guess, because I was always taking journalism courses. There was a writing—what's the word I want to use, like a writing camp or something, a summer camp for writers, for either two or three weeks up in Wisconsin, where I could take the train. It was a sort of a lumber mill town. I forget the name of it. I went to that because I knew writing was what I wanted to do though I didn't really think that just on the basis of that plus my other courses I could necessarily get a newspaper job, though that's what I just really wanted. But I just was so unhappy that I took a wild fling.
In addition to having taught myself to type, along the way while I was in the bank I took shorthand courses, Gregg shorthand. I would go for a couple of months and then I'd run out of money so I'd have to drop it for a few months. But finally I basically learned shorthand.
So when I came back, I got a job as a secretary in a firm, they were called newspaper representatives. They're like the middleman between an individual advertiser and the publication he wants to advertise in. Like let's say Proctor & Gamble is going to place ads all over the country. Well, instead of them getting in touch with each one of the outlets, they deal through this representative. So I worked there for a while. And I worked briefly for Broadcasting magazine.
Ritchie: Both times as a secretary.
Shelton: Yes, both times as secretary.
Ritchie: Did you learn things or skills that might have contributed to your later work?
Shelton: No, because I didn't stay long enough in either of them. I learned a little bit about the mechanical end of newspapers, how the ads are placed and all that but I didn't give a damn about that.
I was working for Broadcasting magazine and I'd only been there a few months, when one day—this is a dumb story on myself but I'll tell it because it says something about my innocence as a Catholic girl. He was dictating a letter to a friend and he used the word "bastard," in what context I don't recall, except in that day even he didn't want me actually spell it out so he said, "You know, write 'b', dash, dash." I was so dumb I didn't even understand enough to put the right number of dashes. I just really didn't get it. I cannot explain to you the degree of Catholic innocence, partly maybe because my mother hadn't been there, you know, but also I didn't learn anything in Catholic school. My children at age ten knew more than I knew when I had that job.
So anyway, this man was very sweet. He knew I really wanted to work on a newspaper. Oh, I should have said earlier that I did also go around, after I'd finally quit the bank, right around the time I was considering quitting, I did go to the newspapers in town and try to get a job on the strength of my evening classes and stuff. Well, everybody was very sweet. As a matter of fact, it rather surprises me because it's so hard to get a job as a woman, it was hard until World War II came along, but actually they didn't say no. Two or three different—two, anyway, city editors said, "Well, you know, we really can't hire you without any experience to a major metropolitan newspaper. Go work in a medium-sized paper out of town for a year and then come back and see me."
Ritchie: Come back to Chicago.
Shelton: Yes. "Then come back and see. We'll see if we have anything then." Well, I couldn't do that because of the situation at home, you know.
Ritchie: You didn't have the mobility.
Shelton: I didn't have the mobility. I was locked into a family situation. But I think by then—see, eventually my two brothers came, two younger brothers came to live with us also.
Ritchie: So you had the whole family.
Shelton: So I think by then we had the whole family. One of the brothers [John Waller Graham] had gotten sick with something like flu but he couldn't get over it. He stayed—he was being sick for weeks. And my father had to go to work. He couldn't really cope for a long period with a sick child. He could for a few days but not for long. Probably he and my grandmother had had another fight and she was gone and something had to be done with this sick kid.
So he agreed—we didn't lose touch with them, you know. We would go see the boys. He agreed that we could keep Waller at least until he got well. Well, in the end, he just let us keep him and we took Billy, the youngest, also. So by the time that was going on, I had my mother and these three brothers, a full house, so there's no way I could do that.
But anyway, going back to the Broadcasting magazine when I couldn't even spell. This man who was very nice and knew I really wanted to be a reporter had heard, before it was publicly announced and before I had heard it, certainly, that a new newspaper was going to be founded in Chicago, that Marshall Field was going to found another daily, to be called the Chicago Sun. And he said, "Why don't you go over there and see if you can get a job?"
Well, I did. At that time, it was just an office, in an office building. And I got a job, as a secretary, though, not as a reporter. But he really was going to let me go, the Broadcasting guy, but he just was very nice about it. He said, "Why don't you see if you can get something over there?" while I was still on his payroll.
So I got a job as secretary and some of the top executives had been hired, all in this one office, and I was assigned the first day to be secretary to the advertising manager. So I accepted that but I did go to whoever had hired me and said, "You know, I'm really much more interested in the editorial side. Is it possible I could work for someone there?" Well, everything was so loose and new, they said, "Oh, sure." So they sent me to be secretary to the feature editor, a lovely guy named Howard Denby. And in time the paper was founded.
Our offices were in the Chicago Daily News building and we used their presses. The reason Marshall Field wanted to found the paper in the first place was because the morning paper, the Chicago Tribune, then edited by Colonel Robert R. McCormick, was very isolationist and was fighting—[it was] bitterly anti-Roosevelt, fighting Lend Lease, everything he was doing to help the Allies in World War II. He was very powerful. This was a very major—the major newspaper in the Middle West so it tended to increase isolationism in the Midwest.
Ritchie: He had influence.
Shelton: Yes, he had a great influence. So that's really why Marshall Field founded the Chicago Sun, to be a liberal voice counteracting the thing. The only trouble was that our first edition came out December 4, 1941. Three days later came Pearl Harbor. Well, then even Colonel McCormick had to stop being in isolation. He couldn't trumpet his isolationism. He had to fall in line and be patriotic once we were at war. So the whole raison d'etre for the Sun kind of went out the window. But Marshall Field kept it going. It's going to this day except it became the Sun-Times. It combined with a tabloid, afternoon tabloid.
Ritchie: It must have been exciting to have been on a new newspaper that was just starting.
Shelton: Oh, it was wonderfully exciting. One of the syndicate salesmen for the paper who continued to be a syndicate salesman, when I came to the Washington Star and we sort of renewed an old friendship, he used to tell my other friends at the Star, "You should have seen this girl, if there was any way she could have gone through the presses each night with the paper, she would have." I was just ga-ga-eyed with excitement.
Ritchie: What is a syndicate salesman?
Shelton: Well, a newspaper—the Washington Post, for instance, has a huge one—will package some of their material and sell it to other newspapers.
Ritchie: I see. So he worked for the same newspaper?
Shelton: Well, the Chicago Sun at that time started its own syndicate right away, which as I think of it is a little unusual, but anyway, it did. That's what he was selling was some of our features to other papers. When he came to the Star years later, I don't remember whether he was still with the Chicago Sun or not but his business was working as a salesman for syndicates.
Ritchie: Now, when you say that was a bit unusual because usually the paper would have to be a bit more established?
Shelton: It seems to me you would have to be more established, just thinking of it, yes. But anyway, we did.
Ritchie: So it was a daily newspaper?
Shelton: It was a daily newspaper, seven days a week.
Ritchie: A morning paper?
Shelton: A morning paper, yes. After they combined with the Times, the tabloid which had been an afternoon paper, they became a kind of an all-day paper.
Ritchie: With different editions?
Shelton: Yes, with different editions. So they tried to span both markets.
Ritchie: You mentioned taking classes at Northwestern. Who were some of the other students? Were there other women students? Were these people that were working?
Shelton: They were basically people who were working because they were evening classes. I don't have a memory of standing out as the only woman so I assume there were other women. I just don't have a clear memory of that.
Ritchie: So you didn't become friendly with any of them and keep up with them through the years?
Shelton: Well, I didn't keep up through the years, again because of that sharp abrupt break in 1948 when I came here to get married. I didn't keep very many friendships. I do have one—two, really—very good friendships that survived from those days. One was a cub reporter with me, a woman. And then there's a young man—was then a young man—who was another cub reporter, and we see each other from time to time. And then there was one who was secretary [Patsy Dowling] with me. I'll pick up the story of what happened after the Sun started. Anyway, she and I were both secretaries to the editor, and she now lives in New York and I keep up with her.
But back to school, no. I ran across a picture of my high school class recently. It's not everybody standing in a row. There are little, tiny individual photographs on a big sheet. I was looking at the names and I only remember—I only identify with two names, even. And I'm not in touch with them at all, have not been since high school.
Ritchie: Of course, given your lifestyle—you know, working and supporting others—did you have much for social life?
Shelton: No, I really didn't. I really didn't.
Ritchie: What did you do for recreation or fun during those years? You were very busy taking classes and working.
Shelton: I don't remember doing—I must have done some things but I don't remember. What I do remember, going back a little further—and this probably I got the money from that same second-cousin, I guess he was, who gave me money for the baseball games and got me a job. He's probably the one who also paid for me to go to the movies. I used to watch a lot of movies during those high school years, the first years after my
mother was gone. Those were the years of the big Busby-Berkeley* extravaganzas. People have written about the fact that it was strictly escape stuff for people in the Depression who didn't have anything else to be happy about. Anyway, I did do a lot of that. But I don't seem to have a memory of—
Ritchie: Going out with friends or doing things?
Shelton: Well, this Patsy that I was talking about, I remember she and I would do things together. She was the secretary. Picking up a little bit on the Chicago Sun thing, I was secretary to Howard Denby as long as he stayed but he only stayed about a year.
Ritchie: And his position was feature editor?
Shelton: He was feature editor. And then when he left, a peculiar thing happened. They gave the job of feature editor—a man named Pete Akers was the political editor. And I guess they just made him managing editor at about the same time Denby left. So Pete Akers managed the feature department, they didn't get another feature editor. He in effect managed it from the managing editor's office. The only trouble was that they were literally about a block apart, in this big building. The managing editor and the editor were up at the front end of the building and the feature editor was way at the back end of the building. To a certain extent, there were people under him to whom he could easily delegate things, like there was a cooking editor and a society editor and the amusement editor.
Ritchie: Any of these editors women?
Shelton: The cooking editor certainly was a woman. And the society editor was a woman.
Ritchie: Would they have had prior experience to get these jobs?
Shelton: Well, the society editor had been the advertising director at Marshall Fields. She really had no newspaper experience. She did beautiful layouts, which is kind of what she had done in her advertising role. So we had beautiful pages. But then under her, she had—no, she was not society editor, excuse me, she was the woman's editor. She was kind of in charge of that whole part of the paper. And under her was the food editor and the society editor, both women. That's about all I remember.
There were several women back there. There were many more women back there than men. The movie critic was a man, Wolf Kaufman, who'd come from New York, an experienced movie critic. The radio editor was a woman, Wauhillau La Hay,** who became a very good friend of mine later. We were friends in Chicago and then she left to go back to New York to get married. Then she came to Washington many years later to work for Scripps-Howard and we resumed a close friendship. In fact, she just died this spring and we had a memorial service—not service, really, tribute we called it—for her at the National Press Club about a month ago. I was one of the people who arranged it.
Ritchie: So there were a number of women—
Shelton: There were a good many women there. And at the time, some of them were good friends of mine. It's funny, Gudrun Alcock, who was the woman's editor, was a friend at the time but then I lost touch completely. And about six years ago I was in Paris, having dinner one night in a restaurant on the Left Bank. I had gone over with the Washington Press Club group for two weeks. We had gone to Amsterdam and Paris.
* Well-known movie choreographer of the 1930s.
Then when they went back, I stayed on in Paris for two weeks. I had pre-arranged that. But I moved from La Grand Hotel where the press group had been staying over to a little hotel on the Left Bank which was cheaper. We were very much in the part of the Left Bank where [Ernest] Hemingway and that whole group of ex-patriots had been. And I was having dinner one night at a restaurant that he had particularly frequented; we knew that and they were very proud of that—they, the managers of the restaurant—though that wasn't why I had dinner there. It was about a block from my hotel and had very good food.
But I fell into conversation with—we were sitting on a banquette where we were right next to each other—the man and woman who were at the table next to me, and somehow the conversation got around to where did you come from and all that. And I said Chicago and that I'd worked on the Sun. And the woman said, "Well, I was the first woman's editor of the Sun." It had been so many years that neither of us recognized—it was kind of miraculous.
Ritchie: To be sitting next to each other, in a small Parisian restaurant.
Shelton: Yes. So I see her most years when I go home to Chicago each summer. I still have two brothers there. The youngest brother died. They're there with their families. And my older daughter [Gale Graham Shelton Wertheimer] lives in Milwaukee with her husband and children. So they're not that far apart; they're about ninety minutes apart. So I go out there each summer. And now my younger daughter has gone back to Chicago, she had been in Bermuda for three and a half years. I can catch everybody all at once. So I usually along the way have lunch with Gudrun Alcock, too
Ritchie: How did you break away from being a secretary?
Shelton: Oh, that's kind of interesting—in terms of what happened to women, that's why it's interesting, not because it's me. In early 1943—about January, I guess—all of a sudden one day—oh, let me back up a bit. I told you that Pete Akers was running the feature department from the front office. Well, since there were all these subeditors under the feature editor, that could have worked pretty well except there were some things that the feature editor did that didn't fall in any of those categories.
For instance, he was in charge of the comics, the Sunday comic section—well, the daily comics also. The problem that developed for me was the Sunday comics. This is the kind of thing you wouldn't know if you hadn't worked at it, or wouldn't think about it. But every once in a while someone would want to place a half-page ad in the Sunday comics. Well, that involved—you don't drop a—at least at that time, I don't know what happens now—you don't drop a comic for that. The comics come in two sizes. You can have a—let's just say Doonesbury—you can have a full-page Doonesbury or you can squeeze it all together tighter into a half page and make room for the ad.
Well, that's all mechanical stuff. But somebody has to deal with the printer—who at that time was in Buffalo, New York, the printer of the Sunday ad section—and tell him, "You're going to get an ad, from Proctor & Gamble, let's say, so use the half-column Doonesbury this Sunday." Well, there was nobody to do that but me but I didn't know anything about it or what I was doing. So I would tell Pete Akers about it, "Well, this has come up," and he'd say, "Well, take care of it," because he didn't know any more about it than I did.
Ritchie: And you had been secretary to the previous editor so—
Shelton: Yes. So I knew a tiny bit but I really didn't know. You know, I would just type a letter; I didn't really have to get into it much. And also at that time we were running a serial story every day. Well, shortly after he became editor, the serial story was about to come to an end, so I told him that. And he said, "Well, pick another one." So we would get books from—we bought serial stories from another syndicate and they would give us like five or six books.
Ritchie: And then you'd run the stories in sections?
Shelton: Yes. Yes. So I'd have to read them. Well, there were a lot of things, I can't even remember them all, but there were several other things like that that Pete Akers didn't want to be bothered with. He didn't know any more about it than I did and couldn't care less, so I had to do them.
Ritchie: So he gave you the responsibility.
Shelton: So one of the things I would do—Howard Denby then lived way out in the suburbs but he did come into town, he may have been job hunting, I don't remember. Anyway, he would come into town to the Northwestern station—his suburb was along the Northwestern Railroad—and quite often I would meet him for coffee in the coffee shop of the Northwestern Railroad. And I'd bring him this bunch of stuff that I didn't know what to do with, and he would tell me.
That had been going on for a few months when one day Pete Akers called me into his office and said, "Somebody has reported to me that you're seen frequently in the coffee shop discussing what looks like business with Howard Denby, and you know this is confidential." My mouth flew open. I said, "Look, I'm trying to figure out how to do all these things you're telling me to do that I don't know how to do. He's helping me."
So then he gave me what really was very wise advice. He said, "You know, it doesn't matter." He believed me. But he said, "It doesn't matter what's true. It's what people think is true." It's really largely true, appearances are important.
Ritchie: So it was the perception that other people might have.
Shelton: Yes. Yes. Well, some one person obviously did have, who went and told Pete. So I stopped doing it. But by then I was more comfortable. And once in a while I'd call Howard but I didn't have coffee with him anymore.
Ritchie: With a stack of papers.
Shelton: Yes. Then a little more time went by and Rick Smith, the first editor, resigned to go back to New York. And he took his top secretary with him. He had brought her from New York in the first place and she returned with him. They were looking around for a secretary. Pete Akers recommended me so I then became secretary to the editor. There were three secretaries, in fact: This Patsy Dowling, the one I mentioned who is still a friend, who lives in New York, was secretary number two, and we also had secretary number three.
The reason he needed so many was partly because the editors spend long hours but also we got literally thousands of letters from around the country when a new newspaper started. It's very unusual to start a new newspaper in a major city. I don't mean it's never done. They tried it in St. Louis a few years ago and it flopped. Anyway, it's unusual. And especially a liberal newspaper so there was great excitement around the country among other journalists and in journalism schools and in various places.
Ritchie: Do you think it was successful? Or why do you think it was successful or kept going?
Shelton: Because Marshall Field poured millions of dollars into it.
Ritchie: That's what I thought.
Shelton: It lost a lot of money. It's apparently successful now. But it's gone through a lot of changes since. Rupert Murdoch owned it for a while. I don't think he still does but I'm not sure.
Ritchie: So there were three secretaries to the editors.
Shelton: So there were three secretaries. The third one just kind of basically did those letters from around the country. But anyway, because I was secretary I knew right away when early in about January of 1943 they suddenly in one day promoted five copy persons—though I think we still called them copy boys then; there were four copy boys and one copy girl—onto the staff because they lost so many men to the war. They'd been drafted or volunteered or whatever.
Ritchie: What did the copy boys and copy girl do?
Shelton: The way reporters turned in stories in those days—not always but if you're on a deadline, you'd send it up a page at a time and you'd literally—did you ever see the movie The Front Page, where they call "Copy!" and then somebody comes over and runs with that page up to the desk. They would also go get coffee and they would—there was a lot of use of messy paste pots. I guess what it was, after the editor, he took the copy one page at a time but then it all had to be pasted together to go up to the composing room in one piece. So just little chores, any chore that you were given is what you did.
Well, when I heard of this happening, these five going on the staff, which is what I was dying to do—
Ritchie: And their experience was not necessarily writing.
Shelton: No. They had gotten a job—they probably, like me, wanted to be reporters but they didn't really have experience. You know, you couldn't get a job on a major newspaper today as a copy boy—I think, based on what I know around Washington—without having a college degree. Fortunately, that wasn't true in those days, fortunately for me.
So I went to Pete Akers and Turner Catledge—the editor I worked for was Turner Catledge, most of whose career was with the New York Times; he eventually was managing editor of the Times. But he had left the Times to take this editorship at the Chicago Sun.
Ritchie: Now why would he have done that? Wasn't he well established at the Times?
Shelton: He was very well established and I don't know. Maybe the idea of being an editor appealed to him. But anyway, after about a year, he decided he didn't want it and he went back to New York—or I guess to Washington then as head of the Washington bureau. He basically was a political figure. He later went to New York, you know, as managing editor, but basically he covered politics in Washington, in the earlier years.
Anyway, I went to both Akers and Catledge as soon as I heard about these five people. I said, "How about me? I want to be a reporter." So they said, well, they'd think about it. So they came back to me a few days later and said, "Well, there's just one problem. Those copy kids were making $18 a week and when we promoted them to cub reporter, we raised them to $25 a week, whereas you as the secretary to the editor are already making the munificent sum of $40 a week. Now, if you will go back to $25 a week, well, you can go on the staff."
Well, by that time—see, our whole life kind of had changed. I skipped this part. But we had had to put my mother back in the sanitarium by then. And my three brothers and I had lived in an apartment. And the only way that Jack, the oldest brother, had been able to avoid the draft so far was that he and I were supporting two younger brothers, one in high school, one in grammar school.
Ritchie: What did he do?
Shelton: He worked for Crane Company, the plumbing firm, a job that the plumbing uncle had gotten for him. I don't remember whether he'd gone on to something else. I don't think so, I think he was still at Crane; I might have lost something. He did go back and finish high school at night. He had quit, as I said, as soon as he was sixteen. I guess he only had—he had either a year or year and a half to do. But anyway, he finished up.
The draft board was holding off because we really were supporting these younger children. But the head of the draft board, who coincidentally was our landlord, and that didn't affect anything particularly except it meant that we knew him personally and I suppose it helped a little because he knew our situation really was what we said it was. He finally had gotten in touch with Jack and said, "You know, the Selective Service is really leaning on us. I don't think we can keep you out of the army much longer." And Jack was able to work it out that he would stay out until Waller, the next brother, graduated from high school, which was just a few months later.
So then Waller graduated from high school, I got him a summer job at the Chicago Sun. He was a night copy boy working outside Pete Akers' office, which was nice. Then in the fall he registered at Northwestern, using his copy boy money to afford it. Because he was sitting outside Pete's office—and Pete really wanted somebody, if Waller hadn't done it, somebody else would have. Pete wanted somebody there who would jump when he wanted him to jump. Pete would grab the edition when it came out—he was always sending things out to people. So that was Waller's job. But he still had a fair amount of time where he could just concentrate on his homework so it was a nice job in that sense.
Why did we get into this? There was a reason.
Ritchie: The oldest boy was having to go off to war.
Shelton: Oh. Well, see, he [Waller] joined the navy reserve at the same time—right away when he went to Northwestern. So then after just one semester, he was in effect drafted. Well, I mean they activated the naval reserve. However, they kept him in college. He got his whole engineering degree at Northwestern, on the navy. So he only had to pay for the first semester, which he did with his Chicago Sun money.
Oh, yes, what got me into this was could I take a reduction from forty to twenty-five. Well, by that time, Jack was off in the army, he wasn't drafted but what he did was join OCS. That's called Officer Candidate School. You have three months of basic training and if you make it, you're a second lieutenant.
Ritchie: Actually, now I think you have to have a college degree to get into that.
Shelton: I wouldn't be surprised. I wouldn't be at all surprised because everything has changed. So anyway, the two brothers and I by then were supporting—one in the army and one in the navy and me at the Chicago Sun—we were supporting the younger brother. And I worked terrible hours at the Sun, partly because I liked to and sometimes because it was necessary. So there was no way for Billy, the youngest brother, to stay home. So we put him in Campion, a Jesuit high school in Wisconsin.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Ritchie: So you put the youngest boy—
Shelton: The youngest boy was already at Campion and the three of us were supporting him. Well, I couldn't go back to $25 a week. We were barely making it as it was because neither of boys were making very much. They were both—Waller may have still been at Northwestern, I don't recall exactly. Jack as a second lieutenant even wasn't making much. Anyway, there was no way. I couldn't live if I did that. So I just said, "Well, I can't," and I cried—not for effect, I cried because I felt so sad. And those two sweet men came back a few days later and said, "Well, we've been thinking about it and we think we can get along without the third secretary in the editor's office. The mail's kind of fallen off. So you can go on the staff and keep your $40." I never would have been a reporter if that hadn't happened, I don't think.
Ritchie: Because you couldn't have afforded to.
Shelton: I couldn't have afforded it and there was that opportunity. And I'm one of—if not hundreds, probably thousands of women around the country, only got their foot in the door to be reporters because of the war. We had nine women on the city staff. Of course, the feature departments I told you had a lot of women but I doubt if there would have been any on the city staff if it weren't for the war. And then they began paring them back after the war.
Ritchie: How did you get to be on the city staff?
Shelton: Oh, that's where all these people were put.
Ritchie: [The men] were leaving from there?
Ritchie: So you were filling the vacancies.
Shelton: We were filling vacancies. Some of my friends in Washington, friends now, remember that women who like me got on staffs because of the war, remember having to sign some kind of a form agreeing that they were replacing a man and that would give up their job when he came back. We weren't asked to do that at the Sun. However, they did manage to get rid of seven of the nine when the war was over and the men came back. There were just two of us who survived.
Maybe the difference—I don't remember this to be true but it could have been—we didn't have a newspaper guild in the beginning at the Chicago Sun. Maybe it was papers that had a newspaper guild who felt they had to do that in order to be sure they'd be able to fire the people afterwards. I don't really know that. Anyway, we didn't have that rule.
Ritchie: So what year was this that you started as a reporter?
Shelton: March 1943. I remember it well.
Ritchie: And what were some of the early things that you did? What would you do, come in in the morning and they'd assign you to something?
Shelton: Yes. I always worked noon to nine. Because we were a morning paper, we didn't get started early in the morning, you know. Our stories went out all day. The deadline was nine o'clock at night, or ten. I don't remember.
I remember the first story I ever went out on. They sent me to cover a League of Women Voters meeting in some church basement way out in the South Side where I hadn't lived except when I was a baby so I didn't really know where I was. But I couldn't find the meeting. I found the church but I couldn't find the meeting. And I was terrified, you know, that I'd blown it. So I called the city desk and said what had happened. And they said, "Oh, that's all right. Sometimes those things don't come off, or something. Maybe we had it wrong or something." So it turned out all right.
I've since read that editors like to send—you know, it's like giving somebody a left-handed screwdriver, or say go get me a left-handed screwdriver, or something—that they make up fake assignments for reporters. But I'm not even sure that was true because it didn't make much sense. I think they really did think there was a meeting.
I remember once being sent out—there'd been a murder and I was sent out to get a picture of the murder victim from the family. Well, of course, the family was devastated. They didn't want to have anything to do with me. They slammed the door in my face so I came back crestfallen.
Well, somehow, later in the day, somebody from the Hearst paper [Chicago Herald American]—and I learned how they did it—had gotten a picture from the family. How they did it, Chicago journalism—The Front Page is kind of true, Chicago journalism is kind of raw. Some of the reporters would pretend they were detectives and say, "I'm from the Chicago police department." So they got the picture. Of course, I felt crestfallen and terrible that I had fallen down on this assignment and here it ran in the opposition paper. Since then I've learned that's how they did it.
Ritchie: Would you ever resort to things like that?
Shelton: No. I don't think—well, let me tell you another story which probably shows I wouldn't have. I don't think I would have been very good at it, I was such an innocent. Let me get to that by telling you that there came a time—I covered a lot of serious stuff, I covered a lot of stuff that normally a cub reporter would never have gotten to except for the fact that so many men were gone.
Ritchie: And there were a lot of cub reporters.
Shelton: Yes. Yes. A woman named Emily Taft Douglas was running for a congressman-at-large seat. Do you know how that is? Right after every census they reapportion, they redistrict some seats. And Illinois didn't have time to redistrict, for some reason, maybe there'd been a court suit or something. But they had an extra seat that they were entitled to. So since they couldn't do all the redistricting, they just ran this person as so-called congressman-at-large, representing the whole state, just a senator does. Then by the next census, or maybe the next election, they had fixed it.
But this particular race, Emily Taft Douglas was running at large, she was a woman and I was assigned to cover her, which meant going all over the state. I remember we were in Peoria, Illinois, the night she got a phone call from Mayor [Ed] Kelly that President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt had died.
Ritchie: And you were there with her?
Shelton: I was there with her, yes. Anyway, I did that, and it got to be even better than just covering her because the way it worked when the general election came along, four newspaper reporters would cover the campaign, two with Republicans and two with Democrats. For the Democrats, let's say, since Emily was a Democrat, they would go out in teams, like the governor, lieutenant governor and the senator, maybe, would be in one team and the governor and the congresswoman-at-large or the candidate-at-large would go out in the other team. And since I'd been covering Emily, I'd kind of gotten locked into this. I became one of those four reporters.
So I was covering statewide politics about a year after I'd become a reporter, which of course I loved because I was always a political junkie, so that was fun. And then I covered city hall at a different time and the school board at a different time.
Ritchie: But you loved the political coverage—
Shelton: Oh, I liked the political stuff best always.
Ritchie: Through the years, when you weren't doing this—prior to your job as a reporter—how did you keep up your interest in the politics?
Shelton: Just reading the papers.
Ritchie: Did you ever volunteer in political campaigns?
Shelton: No, not until after I retired because you—it was always very important to me, and it generally is to reporters, you cannot be involved with either political party, particularly if you're ever going to cover a story. That makes you very suspect. I was always secretly a Democrat but I never did anything political.
Ritchie: So you want your personal views to be kept separate.
Shelton: Oh, totally. I many years later for a while tried to write speeches—I'm jumping ahead of my story—and I found I couldn't do it, because writing speeches—some people are able to do both but I wasn't. Speeches are just the antithesis of what you do as a reporter. As a reporter, you're always trying to write tight and you start with the lead and you wind down to the less important events. Speeches are just the opposite. You build to a climax and instead of writing tight, you're always embellishing, searching for a quote from Adlai Stevenson or [Georges] Clemenceau or someone to help you make a point.
Also you have to take a point of view in a speech. And that was the hardest of all because I had religiously trained myself, it didn't matter whether I agreed with the speaker or not, I said what he said. I reported what he said. And I've often been complimented on that from people.
Ritchie: Well, I noticed in going through your scrapbooks that you covered many political events, both sides, Republicans and Democrats. And I don't think you could have done that for the number of years you did if you'd put your personal bias out.
Shelton: No, I couldn't. Well, the time came when my husband [Willard Shelton] was managing editor of the AFL/CIO News [American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations]. He'd been a daily journalist but finally he was doing that. And the supposition is therefore that you're a Democrat. So occasionally some Republican would say to me, "Gee, Isabelle, that was a good story, though I assume you're a Democrat because of what your husband does but you couldn't tell."
Ritchie: Well, that is a compliment.
Shelton: But anyway, because of that rigid, keep-your-own-views-out-of-things, I just found it impossible to write speeches.
Ritchie: Now, these were speeches for someone else.
Shelton: Oh, yes, these were speeches for someone else. This was the year I spent in the education department. And of course I also didn't understand the subject at all. Anyway, I found it difficult.
Ritchie: When you traveled around the state, was it unusual to have a political candidate who was a woman?
Shelton: I guess it was though I didn't think of it much. I remember one day—I don't know if this speaks just to your question but it was kind of funny. I was traveling that particular day with Scott Lucas; he was a senator from Illinois seeking reelection. And I was riding with him in his limousine. I don't know whether they do it that way any more. It depends on how many reporters, I suppose. Anyway, I was riding with him.
Ritchie: Wasn't that very good, for you to be able to do that, a young reporter from a new newspaper?
Shelton: Oh, yes, it was great. And I don't know where the reporter was—I'm sure the Tribune would have been covering it, too. Anyway, I was the only reporter there at that particular time and I remember him patting me on the knee, and I don't think it was really a sexual move. If it was, I was too dumb to get it. But I remember him saying—he was talking about himself and about his job in the Senate. He said, "Little lady, it's the finest job in the world, finest gentleman's club in the world, being a United States senator."
But interestingly, going through those Chicago memorabilia things that I recently came upon, I found a note from somebody, telling me how—this was another reporter—how he had warned some of the politicos, "Look, you stay away from that girl or I'll break your neck or something." So apparently there was a little feeling that I was just too dumb to get that maybe this was kind of an unusual situation that politicians would take advantage of and that I had to be protected. But I was totally unconscious of it. I was so dumb in so many ways.
Ritchie: How old would you have been at this time?
Shelton: Well, let's see. I went on the staff in '43. And Roosevelt died in '44. It was probably '44 because that was the same year I was traveling with Emily Douglas. I was born in '16, so that would be sixteen, twenty-six, thirty-six—[I was] twenty-eight. So I shouldn't have been that dumb but I was.
Ritchie: What did you like best about working at the Sun, being a reporter there?
Shelton: Oh, everything. I told you I never went home. I just loved it. It's the way I felt in Washington, too. I used to think many days, especially as I'd go into the White House in the morning—and a lot of times I would just go directly to work there—I'd say, "Boy, this is the finest job in the world. They really shouldn't pay me. I'm exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do." I just loved it.
Ritchie: Did you find anything difficult about the job?
Shelton: Well, it was sometimes a little difficult to get it on paper the way I wanted it. I would futz with a story as long as I could. I had an interesting experience that way.
Oh, I started to tell you that I did all this serious stuff because there were so many men gone. And then the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Times, the tabloid, combined and started being put out in tabloid format.
Ritchie: And you were there during this transition?
Shelton: I was there during that transition. No, the tabloid part came later, excuse me. They combined. Marshall Field bought the Times. And the publisher of the Times, a guy named Les Finnegan, as I recall, became publisher of the Sun. Field's title was owner.
Another major thing I covered was labor. A lot of the big labor strikes—Chicago was an industrial center and there were a lot of major strikes, if not during the war, right after the war, which I covered. There was so much going on in the labor movement that three of us were covering it. Justin McCarthy was the labor editor, I was kind of number two, and there was even a number three. Of course, we also had to cover seven days and each of us only worked five days. So there were three of us. So Justin McCarthy got a Nieman fellowship. And everybody, including me, assumed that I would, during the year he was gone, become the top labor reporter.
Well, it happened that just then Les Finnegan—or shortly before then—had become the publisher of the paper.
Ritchie: Of both.
Shelton: Yes, of both. And he said absolutely not. He didn't want a woman covering labor. The only thing women could do was sob-sister stuff. They had a young woman who did what I thought very good sob-sister type stories for the Times. And that was the only role he saw for a woman. So I did not become labor editor. All of a sudden I was just supposed to do features.
And I turned out, to everybody's surprise, including mine, to have a kind of a facility for light features. I went around to lots of—Chicago has loads of conventions, silly kind of—the kind of thing like the Roofers of America or the Gas Users of America, or something, was having a convention. My job would be to poke around and find something to write about, usually it would be a light, fluffy feature of some kind.
But also sometimes I went out on really more sob-sistery stuff. One day they sent me out—a man had been, a truck driver had been murdered while in bed with some woman not his wife, but he had a wife. I was sent out to interview the wife. And I didn't like the idea of the assignment but they assured me, the city desk assured me, "Well, she already knows about it." That's why I'm going to tell you this story because you asked me would I have pretended to be a detective when I wasn't.
I got out to the house and the woman—it turned out she did not know, the police had not been there. And she takes me into the apartment, into the kitchen. She's got three little tow-headed boys running around, like age two, three and four, I would say. The laundry is hanging on lines across the kitchen. And she doesn't know what's happened.
Well, I could not bring myself to tell her. I said I understood her husband had been in an accident and I wanted to find out about the family. So I basically got the information about the family but what I didn't get was of course what the editor wanted, this anguished reaction. So I almost got fired.
Ritchie: When you came back?
Shelton: When I came back. I had the story, I thought, but the city editor was furious.
Ritchie: He wanted more?
Shelton: Sure. He wanted the same things you see on television today. "How do you feel about the fact that your husband was just found shot dead in the bed with another woman?" You know. So I guess that answers your question. I wouldn't have been very good at dissembling.
This also speaks to your asking me whether things were difficult for me. As I said, getting things down on paper was sometimes difficult.
This was another gruesome murder. I was sent to interview a woman whose mother had been accused of killing her stepfather, the woman's husband, the alleged murderer's husband, you know—the stepfather of the woman I was supposed to interview. Well, I got out there. And she didn't know very much about it, either. She just knew something terrible had happened and her husband, the dentist, was down at the police station.
What had happened—which I did know although I didn't tell her—the woman had murdered her second husband, the stepfather, cut his body up in eight pieces, and was walking the pieces in shopping bags to the Chicago River, which I guess wasn't terribly far from where they lived. Then she would drop the pieces in the river. Well, by the fourth trip, with the last pieces, she was getting pretty tired. So she didn't get quite far enough out on the bridge and she dropped them along the riverbank of the Chicago River, where they were found.
Ritchie: And you knew this.
Shelton: I knew this but I didn't tell her that. But I did get all the information from her. But then I got back to the office and the city editor wasn't mad that time but this was just a question of time. He said, "We've only got twenty minutes to the first edition," and he knew I wasn't very speedy and he said, "Just write it as fast as you can. You can do it over in the second edition. Just give us something for the first edition."
Well, I did. I never wrote so fast in my life. And I was sending a copy every couple of paragraphs, literally. Well, at the end of it, he came over to me and said, "It was absolutely fine. We don't have to change anything." I can do it when I have to but if I have time to fiddle, I fiddle, trying to make it better.
There came a time on the Chicago Sun—I'm sorry, on the Washington Star, there was a time when we could get things into that day's paper. Say I went to a congressional hearing in the morning, I could still get a good bit of the story in that day's paper. But you couldn't go back to the office and write it. You just had to go to a telephone and dictate.
Ritchie: Dictate from your notes?
Shelton: Yes, just from your notes. You usually didn't have time to write a lead or anything. You left that committee room, hit a phone and started dictating. Well, I found I could do that, too. In other words, if I have to do it, I can do it. But if I have time, I fiddle around.
Ritchie: And of course you were writing this out longhand—or were you typing it on a typewriter?
Shelton: When I was phoning, I wasn't doing anything.
Ritchie: But when you were fiddling with it.
Shelton: Oh, yes, I was on a typewriter, right. When computers came along, it was so wonderful, because it was the first time in my life I had ever turned in letter-perfect copy. You know, in newspapers you don't have to—or you didn't, they're all computerized now—but you could X out and write up in the margins and things like that. And I did a lot of that because if I had time I was always changing things. And with a Sunday feature, I was doing cut-and-paste, you know, moving paragraphs around. Well, you can do all that on the computer, as you know.
Ritchie: Were there any things that you weren't allowed to cover, or that they didn't think that a woman should cover?
Shelton: No, but the police stopped me a couple of times. I was sent to the morgue once. I forget the story now but it involved looking at a body that had been pulled out of drawer and they talked me out of it. I forget whether that was police or morgue people. But they said, "Little lady, you really don't want to see this. We'll give you the information." So I accepted it. I was kind of meek and mild in those days. Maybe I wasn't so meek and mild later.
Then one day I was coming back from lunch to the Chicago Sun. The Daily News building was right on the river. So I was crossing the bridge to go back to work and there was a crowd gathered along the riverbank and police were there. So I started down to see what was going on, just as a reporter, you know, I'd come upon this, maybe no other reporter knew it. Well, a policeman stopped me. I forget why he stopped me but—I guess I showed him my press card and he said, "Little lady, you don't want to see that. We've just pulled a body out of the river and it's green and terrible and you don't want to see it."
So that stopped me. But I don't recall the Sun not letting me do it, again because they were so desperate, they wouldn't have let me cover statewide politics if they weren't desperate.
Ritchie: Now, when Les Finnegan shifted you, did you fight that at all? Or did you see it as an opportunity?
Shelton: I didn't see it as an opportunity. I was unhappy about it but I guess I couldn't fight it. It was this is what the publisher says, period. I was very unhappy about it because I had looked forward to being the labor editor. But I came to enjoy it, I really did. And I was kind of pleased to discover that I had a small talent for feature stories.
Ritchie: Now, at this time would the men have been coming back from the war yet?
Shelton: Probably yes, because—you see, I didn't leave Chicago until just before I got married which was February 1948, Valentine's Day by pure coincidence. We didn't pick it, it just worked out best.
So, yes, they would have but that didn't have anything to do with Les Finnegan's decision. He just had the typical male editor's attitude on what women should cover. So yes, the men were coming back. They pretty much were back.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.